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Cut-price uniforms don't always add up

After the worst summer since records began, the nation's children are now back at school wearing uniforms they could have bought with their lunch money. Or, according to anecdotal evidence that has reached the Drapers office, in the same uniform they wore last term.

Five interest rate rises in the past year (and potentially another one to come) and the recent stock market jitters have dented consumer confidence to the point that some parents don't feel able to invest in new school clothes, even though they could famously buy an entire uniform (shoes included) for just £10 in Asda.

The latest figures from the BRC show that overall retail sales were up by a better-than-expected 3.7% for August, although like-for-like sales rose just 1.8%. Kidswear showed negative growth, but that does not include the last week of the summer holiday, when schoolwear trade traditionally peaks. September's figures will reveal more and we will know for sure if that late trade delivered on its promises.

Parents do tend to take school uniform buying to the wire in the hope that they will benefit from an extra special offer, which in the past one could understand, but it's hard to see how they hope school clothes will get much cheaper. Three school shirts in Tesco cost just £3.75 this year, compared with £5 last year, while the price of a jumper has been cut by a third on 2006's price to just £2.

The price battle has grown more heated over the past few years, but this year has become more ruthless than ever. The supermarkets and value retailers (according to research consultant Verdict, Primark now holds a 6.2% share of the kidswear market, compared with just 2.8% five years ago) have gone to great lengths to outdo each other on price, and the grocers have the advantage of being able to offer all the cut-price classroom paraphernalia any child could need or want under one roof.

But it's not just the supermarkets that are cutting prices, or at least pushing the virtues of their low prices. John Lewis's back-to-school campaign has been heavily price-led, although it says it introduced its lower-priced schoolwear last year. M&S has focused more on the benefits of its clothes, such as stain-resistant fabrics or fashion detailing, but the price was always prominent. Its campaign was my personal favourite, but given that it no longer features in Verdict's top five kidswear retailers (with a 3.8% share, it is sixth behind Next, George, Tesco, Primark and Woolworths), perhaps parents do not share my view.

Some have suggested that to avoid the price battle spiralling out of control, schoolwear retailers should focus on ethical issues. This, they feel, would press all the right buttons with eco-conscious parents and enable clothes to be sold at more sustainable prices while helping to protect the planet's resources.

It's a great idea and it would be nice if it proved to be true, but if parents' resources can't stretch to the rock-bottom prices on offer at the moment, you have to wonder if they would be prepared to pay more, even for such a valid, and arguably necessary, reason.

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